APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) is producer/director Francis Ford Coppola’s visually beautiful, ground-breaking masterpiece with surrealistic and symbolic sequences detailing the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War.
Coppola had already become a noted producer/director, following his two profitable and critically-acclaimed Godfather films (1972 and 1974) - the epic saga of a Mafia-style patriarch and his successor. This provocative film did for the Vietnam War genre what The Godfather did for the gangster movie.
After a three to four year wait for the notorious film (that brought other award-winning Vietnam war films to the forefront a year earlier - The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978)), the film that was budgeted at $12-13 million was something of an extravagant, self-indulgent epic in the making that cost almost $31 million - with much of the film shot on location in the Philippines.
The highly-publicized delays and catastrophes in the grueling shoot (scheduled for about 17 weeks but ending up lasting about 34 weeks), along with extra-marital affairs, a grandiose and suicidal director, drug use and other forms of madness, were mostly due to a rain-drenching typhoon (named Olga) and a star-debilitating, near-fatal heart attack for star Martin Sheen.
After its first editing, the original version was six hours long and had to be severely edited. A documentary about the film’s chaotic making, shot in part by Coppola’s wife Eleanor and including interviews with most of the cast and crew, was titled Hearts of Darkness: A Film-maker’s Apocalypse (1991). [Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was an inspiration for the film.]
This war story’s screenplay, written by John Milius and Coppola himself (with a separate credit for Michael Herr for Sheen’s narration), became a metaphorical backdrop for the corruptive madness and folly of war itself for a generation of Americans.
Francis Ford Coppola described his own motivation in the making of the ‘quest’ film, with elements borrowed from the horror, adventure and thriller genres: “to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.”
Coppola’s masterpiece chronicles the harrowing intersection of optimistic innocence and experiential reality in the Vietnam conflict. Although the film is flawed by its excesses, an ambiguous and incohesive script, and a baffling ending, it still remains a brilliant evocation of the madness and horrors of war.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing, but the film won only two well-deserved awards: Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) and Best Sound. However, it was awarded the Palme D’Or (the top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival.